Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Saving the World. With Games!

I was supposed to write this post last week but turns out I actually had something more important to do. If for some reason you did not guess from the title, this post is about Reality is Broken (Jane McGonigal).

Here's a really brief summary. The youth of today are gamers. Almost everybody plays games at least to some extent. They are becoming extraordinary at something, but what exactly? Putting the emphasis on players of multiplayer games, McGonigal suggests that collaboration is one of their most important superpowers. However, they are presently using their powers almost exclusively in virtual worlds because the real world cannot compete. Reality is not a very well designed game. That is why, she suggests, if we could make reality a better game, we could harness the power of all these gamers and truly save the world. We could also design games to make these gamers happier by guiding them to do what are called happiness activities.

The book is really inspiring and I strongly suggest reading it. It is highly optimistic and you might find yourself not in entire agreement, but nevertheless, it is a compelling vision. Do I subscribe to it? Mostly, yes. I mean it is clear to me that politics has failed to save the world, so we the people must do it ourselves. I also know that it just won't happen if we don't make saving the world interesting. Even if we choose to look past McGonigal's optimism, the baseline she proposes in her book is valid: we need to get epic wins in reality. We need feedback and meaning. World saving is too often an activity that feels meaningless, lacking feedback. Feedback, how strange the way we always seem to get there.

If we return to reality (do we have to?), it would take some really compelling game design to make world changing games that people would truly want to play over the ones about saving virtual worlds. It is easy to get people already interested in world saving to get involved in world saving games. They have the initial drive to save the world. The bigger challenge is to get those people interested who could not care less. This is the part that makes me doubtful. Is it even doable? I'd like to see it happen but I'm a bit too cynical to believe in it just now. I think the same largely applies to any other means of trying to activate people. However, I think this problem goes away if we don't try to think too big.

The second part of McGonigal's book is the most interesting in my opinion. It keeps gamification on a personal level. The goal is to improve lives of people as individuals. Happy people are more likely to take interest in matters beyond their own. Depressed or other wise anxious people (alarmingly huge part of today's youth) are very unlikely to lift a finger. With projects like Quest for Learning I think gamification is an important method to return people to life. The first step in saving the world is to save us from boredom and negative stress. Only then it becomes possible to engage people in more lofty goals. The ironic thing about happiness activities is that people don't feel like doing them when they are not happy.

All in all, I mostly stand in agreement with McGonigal (and indeed, she says much of what I just did, just with different emphasis). My view however is less optimistic. I expect people to be self-centered. It might not be very nice of me, but I think it's an aspect that should always be kept in mind when designing. The bottom line is what counts though, and that's where I think McGonigal is right: games can save the world. They can do so gradually, piece by piece, mending people as individuals. Every small improvement is a victory. After all, we need to see our progress to stay motivated.

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